Harmony Valley Farm
90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles south
of La Crosse
Years farming: Since
Total acres: 75
(approx. one acre per crop)
60 berries and vegetables, from wild leeks and celery
root to raspberries and pumpkins.
harvesting in April, finish in early November. CSA deliveries
start the first Saturday in May, and extend into December.
• Extensive cover cropping
• Annual applications of compost,
permanent hedgerows as habitats for insect predators
• No-till vegetable production
to reduce erosion and improve soil structure
• Detailed record-keeping
CSAs, farmers markets, wholesale distribution, restaurants,
farm stand, local retail stories
April 19, 2004: Temporary workers, usually an invisible
subset of laborers, have been making the news lately. In January,
President Bush rolled out a sketchy plan to revamp the temporary visa
program, leaving lots of questions swirling in the media and in the
heads of farmers like us. Earlier, a bi-partisan legislative proposal
called AgJobs was introduced with considerably less press attention.
Both plans attempt to improve the laws surrounding seasonal workers,
but neither will be enacted anytime soon. For this year, the only
option for agricultural employers who need legal, seasonal help is
to hire from the local workforce or participate in the H2-A program.
We manage our 75 acres of fresh market vegetables for a 450-member
CSA and wholesale outlets with a five-person year-round crew. For
the growing season we employ 15 additional people. The past few
years, our crew has been pretty stable. Those who don't work for
us in the winter find alternate employment fairly easily in small
factories, on dairy farms or in creative self-employment, happily
returning to Harmony Valley Farm when the weather warms up. For
the few job openings we must fill each spring, we find plenty of
competent folks who have been referred to us by our current employees.
We make it known that we do not pay cash wages, we maintain a payroll
and hire only people with legal working credentials. We give preference
to people with experience, and who will consider working here for
more than one season. This process has led gradually to a harvest
and packing crew that is at least half Hispanic, with roots in Mexico.
We have benefited from the stability of a returning, professional
crew. Employee training time has been greatly reduced. The cost
of producing some of the labor-intensive crops has gone down as
the expertise of our employees has gone up.
Last autumn, Jose Manuel, one of our most capable and reliable
employees, let us know he would be leaving before the end of the
season to return to his family in Mexico. We encouraged him to return
to work in the spring, but he avoided making a commitment. So, in
January, when we were invited to visit a friend spending the winter
in San Miguel de Allende, we tucked Jose Manuel’s address
and phone number in our bags, remembering he lived not far from
An eye-opening experience
Once in Mexico, finding Jose Manuel was as easy as making a phone
call. He really did live in a rancho just outside town with his
wife and three year-old daughter. He came to pick us up and drove
us back to meet his family. We toured his little village, met his
compadres, Juan and Anna, and enjoyed a wonderful lunch with his
wife and daughter. It was an eye-opening adventure.
It became immediately obvious that working in the states was a way
of life for the vast majority of men in the rancho. The funds they
earned in “el norte” and sent back were responsible
for the many newly-built and remodeled homes, including Jose Manuel’s,
with its beautifully-tiled bathroom and patio-in-progress. Both
Jose Manuel and Juan were working in construction for the winter.
They explained that the pay was poor, just enough to cover living
expenses, and job security was non-existent. They both hoped to
work in the States again soon. Conversation, of course, moved toward
working at Harmony Valley. Soon enough we gained a whole new understanding
of Jose Manuel’s situation. He reluctantly revealed that his
work documents were false and that crossing the border and getting
back to Wisconsin would be risky and expensive – costing between
$1000 and $2000. However, Jose Manuel knew other men from the rancho
who worked on large farms and in large plants in the United States
and who went back and forth to work each year on a seasonal visa.
Could we make that happen for them? We agreed to try.
That’s how our H2-A odyssey began, and we’d like to
share our experiences so far. First, this is a federal program with
its federal red tape, complicated by each state adding its own unique
set of labor standards. We read the rules on the Internet, looked
at our timeline of three months until harvest season, and decided
to contract a specialist—Head Honchos of Helotes, Texas—to
help us navigate the maze quickly. For a flat fee this company would
make sure we complied with the laws each step of the way, filing
applications on time, paying fees and even helping our employees
when they went to pick up their visas at the consulate in Monterrey,
For our part, we had to arrange for housing and get it inspected
by April 1. We also had to prove we provide workers’ compensation.
We have yet to draft a work agreement specifying job duties, wages
and hours that comply with our state standards, including offering
the “adverse effect wage"—in Wisconsin that means
$8.70 per hour. In addition to those wages, we must provide transportation
to and from the worksite each day, and to and from Mexico pre-and
post-season. All in all, the requirements seem reasonable for the
employer, yet still provide adequate protection against abuse of
It doesn’t take advanced math to see that hiring Jose Manuel
on a H2-A visa will cost us more than we paid him last year as a
regular, hourly employee with work documents. Nevertheless, we don’t
hesitate to do this for Jose Manuel. First, we would not now hire
him outside of the program, since we know he has false documents.
Second, we know we are getting a good employee; someone we enjoy
working with, and someone who is already very familiar with our
systems. It’s hard to put a value on that. Would we be prepared
to go to these lengths for an unknown worker, searched out by Head
Honchos, without even the possibility of a pre-season interview?
We’d have to think long and hard about that.
So far, so good, for the H2-A program. Our house passed inspection,
the visa applicants in Mexico have their documents in order, and
Head Honchos calls us regularly with progress reports. Watch this
column for another report later this fall, when we have had a full
season as H2-A employers under our belts.